The Fall of Fortresses: A Personal Account of the Most Daring, and Deadly, American Air Battles of World War II by Elmer Bendiner (4 stars)
One of the many pleasures of this book is the very good writing. The author made his living as a writer and it shows. He had a sure hand with the English language.
In January 1943 I found myself a second lieutenant with silver wings. I bought myself a handsome belted trench coat and a pair of pinks [US Army dress uniform for an officer — the air force did not become a separate service until after the war]. I was presented a set of calling cards, inscribed with my name and rank in a flowing, pseudo-Spencerian type face. I was ready for war.
After flying across the Atlantic, the pilot lands their B-17 at an RAF base in Scotland. Says the author:
We leap from the plane as an RAF sergeant and an American captain drive up in a jeep. After them comes an army truck and we prepare to clamber aboard. “Whoa,” says Bob (the bombardier). “Who’s going to guard the sight?” The Norden bombsight has been entrusted to us as if it were the secret weapon of the war, a magical gizmo that promises total victory. Our crewman have stood guard duty over it as if they were in the infantry.
The captain says blithely, “Just put it down there on the edge of the runway. It’ll be all right.” We turn to each other in wonder and we look across the field where other secret bombsights lie upon the grass like litter baskets in a public park.
…RAF men briefed us on what we might face. They did it with such jocular, offhand humor that I could scarcely pay attention to what they were saying, so beguiled was I with their manner of saying it. The British, I quickly found, play themselves superbly in a nonstop performance. I had been used to watching Americans laugh at their own fears, ridicule them, or shout them down with hilarious mock panic. These British instructors seemed determined to conquer death by patronizing it. It was an elegant approach.
After they are called for their first combat flight:
I dressed and put on a tie…it seems a very formal dress for battle.
US Army Air Force bomber crew pre-flight. They are from the 95th Bombardment Squadron, Capt. David M. Jones, pilot; Lt. Ross R. Wilder, copilot; Lt. Eugene F. McGurl, navigator; Lt. Denver V. Truelove, bombardier; Sgt. Joseph W. Manske, flight engineer/gunner.
Fear was part of the furniture in every hut, in every pub, in every parlor, bedroom and bath in England…When the fear was light and transient it drove some of us to the palliative of sex. When it was more troubling it provoked a throbbing headache in the back of the neck or hives or flatulence.
Bendiner describes something here which happened on many bombers a fair number of times. Flak had hit the airplane and fragments had cut the oxygen tubes to the rear of the plane. His ship had been attacked by German fighters. One engine had been knocked out and was trailing smoke. To throw off the aim of the German fighters, the pilot had performed a series of violent maneuvers with the aircraft. The waist gunners, in a state of anoxia, imagined disaster about to strike and jumped.
“Bombardier to waist gunners, bombardier to waist gunners. Come in, come in.” Silence. Then came Mike’s (the tail gunner) voice… “They’re gone. Gone.” We are 25,000 feet above Germany and they are gone. One imagines a switchboard operator saying, “Sorry, sir. They’re gone.”
On the author’s final mission he survived by luck, which is the only reason some lived and most died. Just luck. It was November 1943, they were at 25,000 feet where the temperature was sixty below zero (F). They hit a pocket of air which was a few degrees warmer and had greater moisture and then back into sixty below zero.
That brief weather phenomenon caused their guns to freeze as well as those of the Germans fighters attacking them.
The Messerschmitt came on…well within range now and we had not a gun to stop him…Then we noted no lights were playing along his wings where we knew his guns should be firing…He passed us at our level, and Bohn (the pilot), who had a better view than I had, says he waved.
[Image courtesy of Wikimedia.]